Anti-Santa: The Krampus
By Lindsay Roseberry, Reference Department
Krampus is a new movie coming out in December that’s rated PG-13; the story is based on the Germanic legend of Krampus. It could be scary for the little ones. Read below and you’ll see why. And if you’re wondering what is a Krampus? It’s not a what; it’s a who.
Krampus, a kind of bogeyman, is most often found in Germanic and Austrian legends and is a terrifying companion of St. Nicholas, usually seen as a black or dark figure with horns, (and often a very long tongue) shadowing the good Santa Claus. He walks behind Saint Nicholas on St. Nicholas Day Eve (December 6) and leaves ashes or sticks for the naughty children, while St. Nicholas leaves sweets or fruit for the good little girls and boys. Krampus is the one who punishes the bad children, those who misbehave or are mean to others. He carries a large sack with him, and legend has it that he carried bad girls and boys (those on the naughty list) away to store in a tall tree for eating later. You wouldn’t want to be on this naughty list! In some towns, not too long ago, he followed Saint Nicholas from town to town and quizzed children on their deeds, whether they were good of bad that year, whether they did well in school and their chores.
Some think that the word Krampus comes from the Germanic word for talon, similar to crampon, the device climbers use when climbing icy mountains. Some folklorists say that Krampus is the god of the witches, brought low to serve Saint Nicholas. Others say he is a pagan god, greatly diminished. Perhaps this is why Krampus celebrations were banned by the Catholic Church for centuries. He is similar to the horned god the witches in colonial New England were accused often of consorting with!
He is mostly known in Europe, Austria and Germany, and is popular in Christmas parades in those countries. In Holland, he’s known as Black Peter, or Zwarte Piet. In Germany, he’s known as Knecht Ruprecht and in some parts of Germany, Hans Trapp. When the Pennsylvania Dutch came to America, they brought the name Fur Nicholas (Pelz Nicholas) with them. This name became Belsnickel down through the years. Also, in Philadelphia, there is still a Mummer’s parade on New Year’s Day, often with people in Krampus costumes. In Austria, sweets made out of dates and nuts are made to look like Krampus are sold in markets. At one time, people could send Christmas cards with Krampus on them. Who’s to say they won’t make a reappearance? In Ypsilanti, they put on a Krampus Ball. People can come in costume and dance. One of the organizers has called it “Halloween for Adults,” even though it’s a Christmas party.
Many families brought the legend of Krampus with them when they came to the United States. Perhaps Brom was from one of those families? The legend of Krampus became more widely known in the United States from the book Krampus the Yule Lord by the author and artist Brom. The cover of his book is quite arresting. If something looking like that was asking me if I was a good child, I’d say yes no matter what. In Brom’s story, Krampus has been imprisoned by Saint Nicholas, and is working on getting free to take his revenge. He has a few servants, called belsnickels, who carry out his orders. Whether or not he succeeds, you’ll have to find out yourself.
He was known to carry with him a whip, a stick, a bell or a sack.
- The Christmas Encyclopedia by William D Crump; McFarland & Company, Inc., 2001.
- The Encyclopedia of Christmas & and New Year’s Celebrations (2nd ed.) by Tanya Gulevich; Omnigraphics, 2003.
- German Folklore: a handbook by James R. Dow; Greenwood Press,